The following article was printed in the Yated a week and a half ago:
So Far So Fast
The Life and Lessons of Rabbi Gershon Binyamin Burd zt”l
By Sara Yocheved Rigler
When Gregory Burd was born to Russian Jewish parents in Odessa in 1973, he didn’t receive a bris. After the family immigrated to Chicago when he was three, he received the bris, but little else Jewishly. At 16, he was playing on the football team of his local public high school. At 18, he was a lifeguard. Only at the age of 25 did he attend his first Torah class. Yet, when he drowned in the Mediterranean on his 40th birthday two weeks ago, his rosh yeshiva in Yerushalayim tearfully declared, “We didn’t lose just a fellow in the bais medrash. We lost the neshamah of the yeshiva.”
The shivah was a week of surprises. Every day brought a new revelation of chessed that Gershon had hidden from everyone – even his wife. By the end of the week, baffled friends were whispering the word “tzaddik.”
How did Gershon Burd go so far so fast?
His mother Isabella was on her way to the Chicago Torah Network to attend Rabbi Daniel Deutsch’s parsha class before Shavuos in 1998. She invited her son, who was working in his father’s insurance agency, to come along. Greg loved the class so much that he scheduled an appointment to speak to Rabbi Deutsch privately. He brought with him a list of 100 questions.
Three months later, telling his parents, “I have to go learn Torah,” he left for Yerushalayim to study at Yeshiva Ohr Samayach.
“When Gershon discovered Torah,” his mother recounts, “he was like a fish in water. He was very intense.”
A year later, resisting his mother’s entreaties for her only son to come home, he told her, “I’m in kindergarten. I have to learn more.”
A year after that, still learning at Ohr Samayach, he told them, “I’m in first grade. I have to learn more.”
He never returned to Chicago to live.
While Gershon left Chicago, he never left his family. On the phone every morning for fourteen years, Gershon learned with his parents, first Shmiras Halashon, then Pirkei Avos. Due to his influence, every member of his family except one eventually became frum.
At 30, Gershon married Batya Fefer. Six months his junior, Batya also came from a Russian family. Raised in Toronto, by the time she was 24, she was a lawyer for the top corporate tax firm in Toronto. At 26, she came to Israel on a Birthright trip, started learning Torah at EYAHT, and became a baalas teshuvah.
Gershon and Batya had five children, the youngest born just thirteen months ago. The oldest, nine-year-old Yaakov Yehosh- ua, would be the one to say Kaddish for his father.
By the time he married, Gershon was learning at Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah in the Old City of Yerushalayim. Rabbi Shimon Green was the rosh yeshiva. As Batya testifies: “Rabbi Green built Gershon. At Bircas HaTorah, they have a mesorah, a genuine rebbi-to-talmid mesorah, going all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu. Gershon received that mesorah, in the purest form, from Rabbi Green.”
The mesorah that Gershon wholeheartedly received was to become a soldier, to be what Rabbi Green called a “Yes, sir” Jew, doing whatever is Hashem’s will without personal agendas. According to Rabbi Green, there are no “B” moments; every moment offers an opportunity to do avodas Hashem.
Gershon actualized that ideal several months before his death. For years, he had worked to convince Rabbi Green’s suc- cessor, Rabbi Nissim Tagger, to give a 6:30 a.m. Daf Yomi shiur, Gershon’s only hope of getting through the entire Shas. Finally, to Gershon’s joy, the rosh yeshiva consented and the shiur commenced. One week later, Batya went to speak to the rosh yeshiva. Her last childbirth, a few months before, had been an emergency C-section with complications that kept her bedridden for a long time. She beseeched the rosh yeshiva, “I can’t physically do it. I can’t get the kids off to school in the morning. I need Gershon’s help.” The rosh yeshiva ordered Gershon to drop out of the shiur and stay home in the morning to pack up the children’s sandwiches and walk them to gan and cheder. Batya, consumed with guilt, told Gershon, “I’m so sorry. You worked so hard to get this shiur going.”
Gershon looked at her with consternation. “What are you talking about? This is what I’m supposed to be doing now. This is my avodas Hashem.”
There are no “B” moments.
Soon after joining Bircas HaTorah, Gershon became the menahel of the yeshiva. “The yeshiva was his heart and his life,” recounts Batya. “There was nothing in the world he loved more, except me.” Batya hesitates a moment, then adds: “I’m not even sure which of us he loved more.”
Gershon worked full-time for the yeshivah and learned full-time, three sedorim a day. He was never late to seder and never left early. “I used to ask him,” says Batya, “‘Do you absolutely have to learn the entire, entire day?’ But no matter what I said or did, he never gave up that full-time learning seder.”
Even so, a few days before he passed away, Gershon sent an email to the present rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Nissim Tagger:
“Bli ayin hara, I’ll be 40 in a week and I feel like I really need to severely rededicate myself to learning. It’s true that, boruch Hashem, I’ve made a lot of progress, but I think it’s important to be honest with myself, and really, in many ways, I’m a serious am ha’aretz. I know that there are no tricks or secrets and it is only about hard work. Obviously, I need to prep and do chazarah at night and wake up early and daven tremendously for Hashem’s help.
Is there anything else that the RY can suggest?”
Gershon was the yeshiva’s sole fundraiser (and never took a commission!). When Rabbi Tagger succeeded Rabbi Green three years ago, Gershon said to the new rosh yeshiva, “You learn and teach. I’ll take care of everything else.”
He was responsible to raise the entire yeshiva budget: $600,000 a year.
“It was his job because he chose it,” Batya declares. “He used to be the executive director of the yeshiva. Then he fired himself, hired an executive director, and said, ‘I need to be the fundraiser.’ No one wants to be the fundraiser. People hate people who ask them for money. It’s the worst job in the world. But my husband didn’t care what people thought of him. Friends would ask him, ‘Doesn’t it bother you that people hate being approached by you, that people cringe whenever you come near them, and dodge your phone calls?’
“Gershon would answer, ‘I don’t care. It hurts me that people don’t give with their wallet what they give with their heart and their mouth. People love us with their heart. I want them to love us with their pocket.’ He knew it was a terrible job. How many phone calls he had to make! He had to sit on email for hours, waiting for the green light to go on so he could immediately start chatting with them quickly, because they’re dodging his phone calls and the wife won’t let his phone calls go through. It was a terrible job. But he chose it, because he felt that there was no one else who could do a better job.”
During ten years of marriage, Batya never saw her husband angry, never heard him raise his voice, except one time when someone was trying to squeeze money from the yeshiva.
While Gershon’s devotion to Torah was obvious, his chessed was hidden. On the second day of the shivah, a woman whom Batya knows walked in. As Batya recounts: “She looked at me with this look and said, ‘I’m going to tell you something you don’t know. No one in the world knows this except me and your husband. I was the front for your husband’s tzedakah fund for nine years.”
Batya was clueless. “What tzedakah fund?”
The woman continued: “Your husband came to me with wads of money every month and a list of names. I would call the people and they would come to me to pick up the money. They never knew who it came from.”
Where did Gershon get the money? “I have no idea!” Batya exclaims. “For years we had a crack in the sink that we couldn’t afford to repair, but now it’s coming out that he did so much anonymous chessed.”
For years, Batya has been running “Western Wall Prayers” (www.westernwallprayers.org), a service through which people all over the world can pay to have someone pray for them at the Kosel for 40 days. Not only have hundreds of people received a yeshuah through this segulah, but the money raised supports many bnei Torah in the Old City.
At the shivah, the rosh yeshiva disclosed that Gershon once came to him and asked if it was mutar to give people fake names to pray for. It was a low period for Western Wall Prayers, and Gershon was worried that the people supported could not afford to lose their regular checks. In order to maintain their dignity, he wanted to continue to pay them from his own pocket by giving out fictitious names for which to daven.
When Gershon became aware of couples who were experiencing marital friction, he would surreptitiously pay for therapy sessions for them, with neither the couple nor the therapist aware of who was paying.
Batya once noticed a teenager from a frum family doing something reprehensible. Although Batya barely knew the family, when she next saw Gershon, she told him about it, adding, “It’s not lashon hara, because maybe you can help him.” Gershon did not respond. Many other times, Batya told her husband how distressed she was to see this boy going off the derech. Gershon never responded. Batya assumed that he was too busy and too overburdened to care.
When the mother of this boy paid a shivah call to Batya, she asked her to send her teenage son to be menachem her. Hours later, when the boy arrived, Batya asked him, “Did you know my husband?”
The boy responded, “Sure. He had a halacha chavrusashaft with me.”
Gershon’s devotion to Torah and chessed was matched by his total dedication to growth in middos. His nature was to stand on the black-on-white truth of halacha without caring about personal dispositions or sensitivities. He was intense and unrelenting and never wasted a minute.
His wife had a different disposition, more emotional and laid-back. Returning from a trip to America a few months ago, she announced to her husband, “There are avreichim there whom you know – and respect – who take their families bowling even when it’s not bein hazemanim!”
Gershon sought his rosh yeshiva’s guidance on how to be “more warm and fuzzy” with his wife and children. He took it as an avodah and worked on himself to become the emotionally sensitive husband his wife craved. As part of that avodah, he decided to take a day off on his 40th birthday, Friday, October 4, and take Batya to a beachfront hotel for Shabbos – just the two of them.
The day before, he had sent an email to the rosh yeshiva:
“By the way, I did not have time to mention to the Rosh Yeshiva that regarding my avodah of being more warm and fuzzy (with the kids), Batya said that she had noticed that I was doing better recently… I have been trying harder, Rabbi…”
That afternoon at the hotel, Batya noted that Gershon was relating to her as she had longed for. “He did his tikkun,” she later recounted.
Earlier that day, the rosh yeshiva had sent Gershon this email:
“I am thinking about taking a person with me on this trip. I am not a good shmoozer fundraiser and this trip is about building relationships, etc. Perhaps you should join me.
What do you think?”
An hour before his death, Gershon responded:
“First and foremost, I am more than happy to do anything the RY wants, period. Also, I’m certainly biased and would rather not go as it takes away from family and my learning, but of course I know that it could be the right thing. … I am happy to do whatever the RY wants.”
He had indeed become the soldier, perfectly obedient to Hashem’s will, that Rabbi Green had idealized.
After sending the email, they went to the beach. Gershon’s favorite recreation was to swim in the ocean. With Batya dressed modestly, they did what so many of us frum couples in Israel do. They found an empty stretch of beach, far from the official pritzus-filled beaches, where they could swim together.
Batya, looking at the muddy water, opted to sit on the beach. Gershon plunged into the sea, unknowingly keeping his appointment with the Malach Hamovess. Of course, Gershon, the expert swimmer and trained lifeguard, could handle the waves. The Malach Hamovess had to resort to a different ploy: a rock or large piece of debris struck Gershon on the back of his neck. Knocked unconscious, he was under water for some fifteen minutes before Batya, desperately scanning the sea with her eyes, saw her husband’s body float up toward the beach.
At the shivah, Batya said, “Gershon lived his life with the intensity of a yeshiva bochur davening during the last ten minutes of Neilah.” Did he unconsciously know that his days were numbered?
One last question: Do the rest of us realize that our days, too, are numbered?